Now, YES, Rick Wakeman’s former band, is to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
By Dan Wooding, Founder of ASSIST News Service
LOS ANGELES, CA (ANS – December 23, 2016) – It was some 50 years ago and I was desperately looking for stories for my then newspaper, the Middlesex County Times, in Ealing, West London. It had been a frustrating day, and I was about to give up after calling on various shops in the South Ealing area of the borough, when I came across a store called the Musical Bargain Centre, and walked inside.
Within minutes, the lives of two very different people were changed forever.
For little did I realize that I was about to meet a young musician, then a student at the Royal College of Music in London, who not only was changed my life, but also the face of progressive rock music with the British super group, YES, who have just learned that they are to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Class of 2017.
Now, half-a-century later, I was able to recall that fateful day recently when I met up again with Rick Wakeman in Los Angeles, who many, including myself, believe is the world’s great rock keyboard player. He was coming to the end of the sold-out American ARW (Anderson, Rabin, Wakeman) tour, when these former band members played an selection of many of the YES hits.
I switched on my digital recorder for an interview with Rick for my “Front Page Radio” show, and Rick jokingly said, “Who are You?”, and then added, “You’re dead right. It’s 50 years that we’ve known each other.”
I mentioned that when I walked into Musical Bargain Centre, I was greeted by the manager, a most unusual and friendly man known as “Uncle Ernie”, and Rick said, “Well-done. It was a great shop run by two guys, ‘Uncle Ernie’ and Dave Simms, who eventually ended up making Simms-Watts equipment, which are very collectible now. In fact Trevor Rabin has one which he absolutely adores.
“I used to hang around in the shop because it was full of musical instruments and also of really nice guys and musicians who were coming in [including John Entwistle, the bass player with The Who]. I used to skip off from school and sort of pop in there. It was either that or ‘British Constitution A-Level’ lessons and I thought, ‘I don’t fancy that,’ so I’d go to the music shop and you turned up one day and was desperate for a story because you had nothing. I think you had a flower show, or something, and somebody had run over a tortoise and that was about it.
“We all loved ‘Uncle Ernie’ who later used to look out for stories for you. I believe he told you that I had just played mellotron on ‘Space Oddity’ for David Bowie.”
I reminded Rick that when I arrived at the store, I heard someone playing a keyboard and it was making sounds I have never heard before, so I asked him what that instrument was.
“I was playing a Vox Continental double manual organ, which they had in there. It was a great, great instrument and I was just playing it for a bit of fun,” he said. “If anybody’s got one them and want to sell now, I’d love one of those.”
I had asked “Uncle Ernie” who it was that was playing in another room at that time, and he told me that it was “Ricky Wakeman,” who, besides attending the Royal College of Music, did “lots of sessions.” [Rick later played piano and arranged “Morning Has Broken,” for Cat Stevens], and so he brought out “Ricky”, whose real name is Richard, but he had a girlfriend at the time called Jane who gave him that name “because,” as Rick told me, “she liked people with the name of Ricky, like Ricky Nelson.”
So, once I found out that he lived in part of our circulation area, I got out my pen and notepad and began what turned out to be his first-ever press interview. And that’s how our long friendship began.
After the story appeared, Rick invited me to his Northolt home and played for me on his family piano, which was something I’d never forget, and then I discovered that, like myself, Rick was a Christian.
“My father was a Baptist who attended a church in Hammersmith, which sadly no longer exists, and did some preaching as well, while my mother was a very strict Methodist and was, right until the day she died. They went to separate churches,” said Rick during our interview. “It was deemed too far for me to go up to Hammersmith as a young boy, so I was sent to South Harrow Baptist Church with which I still have connections and I love. It was about a 20-minute walk from my house, through the park and down to the church.
“Considering that they were both strong Christians in every respect, I was never forced to go to church. My Dad always used to say to me, ‘If you don’t enjoy it, you don’t have to go.’ He never believed in forcing the issue of making you do something you didn’t want to do. But I absolutely loved it and, until I was in bands and was touring, got married and moved out of the area, I attended that church for at least 15 years. It was a major part of my life. I made lots of friends there and still have from them.
“South Harrow has changed an awful lot. It’s a much bigger multi-racial area, but the church, and my friends there, played an amazing part in my life and my Mum started going there even though the Methodists and the Baptists didn’t always see eye to eye on things. But she used to pop down with me for major part of my life there.”
Friendship with David Bowie
In our latest interview, Rick spoke about his friendship with the late David Bowie, and said that they first met at Bowie’s palatial home which Rick called “Beckenham Palace” because of size and location in Beckenham, South London.
“We were great friends,” said Rick. “I went to see David there after I did ‘Space Oddity’ with him, and we spent time at his house putting Hunky Dory [his the fourth studio album, recorded in mid-1971 together. I did the piano parts, which was great for me. Later, he and I were neighbors for four years in Switzerland. I say ‘neighbors’ because we both lived up the same mountain, and so we used to meet up a lot when we were, and so I got to know him very well as a person.
“David Bowie lived for music, cared about things and people, and he was a doer. He didn’t like people he called ‘Could haves.’ You know, people who say, ‘Oh, I could have done that,’ and so David would ask them, ‘Well, why didn’t you?’ He always believed that if you have something going in life, you should do it, because the longer you think about it, the less chance you have of ever doing it. He was a very interesting man.”
Wakeman went on to say, “I knew he was sick, but I’d no idea how ill he was. [Bowie died on Jan. 10, 2016, aged 69 after battling cancer for 18 months. After David died, I did so many TV and radio programs about him. I also played ‘Life on Mars’ on the piano, on the Simon Mayo drive time radio show in in the UK, which is the biggest program of its kind in the country, with some ten million listeners. They did a live webcam of it, and in two days, it had 2,000,000 hits, which was ludicrous.”
Rick said that many friends told him that he should record “Life on Mars” for a charity, adding, “I thought this was a good idea, so I recorded it with all the royalties going to MacMillan Cancer Care (https://www.macmillan.org.uk/). It was number-one in the UK for about six weeks, and I felt it was justified and that it would be something David would have approved of.
“David’s death was very sad. One of the things that you start to learn as you get older is that we start to lose so many friends, and what’s interesting is as I look back at those people, virtually all of them have left something behind. And one of the things is when you do pass on — I mean the good Lord takes your spirit and takes your body that goes back in wherever it is depending on whether you’re a ‘burner’ or a ‘burier’, but he doesn’t take what you leave behind.
“So, the great thing, and it’s not just for artists leaving behind music, which will live forever, or if you’re a writer, but everybody leaves something everybody leaves something. We can live with the memories because they’re never taken away. They’re left for you to enjoy, but don’t dwell on bad things.”
One of Rick’s early sessions was “Morning Has Broken,” and this beautiful hymn still plays a role in Rick’s life. In fact he has recently recorded a special Christmas version of ‘Morning has Broken’ with 16-year-old soprano, Emmie Beckitt, singing what Cat Stevens had so many years previously. They also previously recorded “Welcome a Star,” from Rick’s incredible oratorio, “The New Gospels.”
Rick meets up with the new Cat Stevens
Having lost contact with Cat Stevens, Rick revealed that he had met up again with Cat Stevens, now a Muslim called Yusuf Islam. “Yes, we spoke in the two-thousands — I can tell you the exact year because I truly can’t remember — and he was dressed in his robes and I called him as Yusuf, because that’s now his name. I did say to him when we met, ‘I’m so thrilled that you’re starting to make music again,” said Rick.
Wakeman added that he told the singer that he felt he had been given a talent and he should be using it. “I thought it was a shame that for quite long periods of time he never made any music. So I was thrilled that he was back playing again,” he said.
His tribute to Pastor Chuck Smith
I had the privilege of setting up two American charity concert tours for ASSIST and he performed on both of them at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa.
“I was very saddened when we lost Chuck Smith, but going back to what we were talking about earlier, look what he’s left behind. That’s the great thing. What you leave can’t be taken away. People sometimes say, yes that it’s a shame when you lose somebody because you no longer get to spend time with them. But I think we should focus more what they’ve left for us and certainly every time you pass a Calvary Chapel that wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for Chuck Smith.”
I ended the interview by asking Rick how people could pray for him, and he replied, “Oh, I’ve got a lot. There’s never no shortage (laughs). It’s interesting that as you get older, so much revolves around health and there are a lot of health issues in our family. For instance, David, the 80-year-old father of my lovely wife Rachel, was diagnosed with advanced kidney cancer, and they just removed a kidney with a big tumor. He’ll need a lot of because there is a lot of healing to be done.
“Rachel’s mother, Pat, who is 79, and who’s absolutely wonderful, she’s been in ill health recently and it’s tough on her. It’s also been tough on Rachel because I’m not there. And it’s very, very hard you want to be there, but she knows why I’m here in the States to help the family. And the direct family, as well needs prayer. Adam, my son, has had heart difficulties and still has so he’s always in our prayers. Also, my eldest boy son Oliver, has a lovely little girl called Lottie who’s badly autistic so we obviously we need prayers for her.
“But we’re not unique. Every family, everybody you talk to, has got health issues. He [God] is having to work overtime up there.”
With that, Rick was off to the Orpheum Theater for a sound check, and another amazing show with his musical colleagues.
If you would like to check out Rick Wakeman’s website, please go to www.rwcc.com where you can read about his controversial views of YES finally been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Note: I’d like to thank Robin Frost for transcribing this interview.
You can hear the full interview with Rick Wakeman at http://oldassistnews.net/frontpageradiofiles/RickWakemanFPR20161211Mono.mp3.
Photo captions: 1) A composite picture of the classic YES. (http://yesworld.com). 2) Two classic rock legends performing together: Brian May from Queen, and Rick Wakeman from YES. 3) Wakeman and Bowie. 4) Rick Wakeman performing “Welcome a Star” with Emmie Beckitt. 5) Cat Stevens/ Yusuf Islam. 6) Rick Wakeman with a group of friends in England. Included in the picture are a choir that recently performed with him, teenage singing sensation, Emmie Beckitt, Rick’s granddaughter Skyla, and her dad, Adam Wakeman, himself a brilliant keyboardist. (http://rwcc.com/). 7) Rick with Norma and Dan Wooding, with Dan holding a copy of his biography of Rick. (Lowell Reed).
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 76, is an award-winning journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, and is now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for more than 53 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. Dan is the founder of the ASSIST News Service (ANS) and he hosts a weekly radio show and two TV shows, all based in in Southern California. Dan also is the author of some 45 books, including Rick Wakeman’s official biography, which has been re-released under the title, “Caped Crusader Rick Wakeman in the 1970s” (Gonzo Multimedia), with a foreword by Sir Elton John. (https://www.amazon.com/Caped-Crusader-Rick-Wakeman-1970s/dp/1908728302).
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